Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Exclusivist Anti-Exclusivist Apologetics

IMG_0326Farhan Qureshi recently posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he discussed my 2011 movement from Christianity to the Indian bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. Qureshi discusses my  conversion story because he has a broader interest.  He’s interested in raising awareness about the dangers religious exclusivism and challenging the exclusivist paradigm.

The religious exclusivist takes the view that only the narrative of his own particular religious tradition is true, or that his particular religious tradition provides the only path to salvation. Religious exclusivism is also associated with the missionary goal of converting people to one’s own religion.

Qureshi has several interesting and I think correct things to say about the dangers of religious exclusivism. While I agree with some of his criticisms, I have reservations about his approach.

First, though, a preliminary point about my own spiritual journey. I don’t self-identify with any particular religious or spiritual tradition. Yes, I was a Vaishnav for about three years, but I haven’t considered myself a Vaishnav since late 2013. I spent a year and a half living in a Zen community and engaging in Zen practice (June 2014 to December 2015), but I didn’t consider myself a Buddhist then, nor am I a Buddhist now. In Helen De Cruz’s interview with me (2015), I provide the most recent detailed account of my spiritual journey. It approximates where I stand today.  So the title of Qureshi’s video (“Christian Scholar Converts to Hinduism, Dr. Michael Sudduth”) is somewhat misleading.

The more interesting part of Qureshi’s video is his more general discussion of religious exclusivism. He makes it clear that he aims to challenge the exclusivist paradigm. Writing with reference to Suni Muslims and Evangelical Christians in particular, he says that he aims to make these people realize how “deluded” and “selfish” their beliefs are. He illustrates this from his personal experiences of encounters with exclusivists.  Among other things, he says, “With loving kindness and no animosity in mind I told them your beliefs are evil . . . vile . . . demonic.”

While I’m sympathetic to Qureshi’s concern about the dangers of religious exclusivism, I find his goal problematic.  I also think his methodology is going to be psychologically ineffective and potentially self-defeating.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, it’s notoriously difficult to reason people out of their deeply held convictions. Religious exclusivists tend to hold their convictions with considerable tenacity.  So the goal of trying to reason exclusivists out of their beliefs is problematic on general psychological grounds. Moreover, we only compound the general difficulty here if we tell people that their deeply held convictions are demonic, vile, and delusional.  It’s hard to see how such an approach is going to be effective in helping people realize anything. In fact, it’s more likely to entrench them further in their convictions. Labeling people’s beliefs with morally demeaning terminology is bound to validate the fears and suspicions exclusivist beliefs are designed to alleviate in the first place. We basically validate exclusivism by a frontal assault.

Second, I have to wonder whether the passion behind Qureshi’s anti-exclusivist apologetic isn’t itself a species of the same thing he’s opposing. Worse yet, it potentially masks this fact.

Qureshi points out that tribalism drives exclusivism. Indeed, but of course that’s because tribalism is intrinsic to human nature and has been essential to our evolution as a species. It is primitive, yes; but much that is in us is and will remain primitive.  This is not confined to religious exclusivism. Tribalism is bound up in our general psychology, specifically our aversion to fear and insecurity. Attachment to an identity offers a kind of insulator or buffer against perceived threats.  It’s a kind of security blanket in which we wrap ourselves.  The communal expression of this is a social identity. There’s safety in numbers, in being a member of an in-group.  The demonizing of the beliefs and practices outside our group is symptomatic of the power of fear and insecurity.

So I have to ask what is motivating the use of morally demeaning language like “vile” and “demonic” to characterize religious exclusivists. What is motivating this pathos to snuff out the enemy, to rid the world of these delusional beliefs? It’s one thing to characterize people’s beliefs as false, implausible, or unwarranted (and in a clinical sense, we can speak of delusional beliefs), but it’s quite another matter to use terms like “vile” and “demonic.” These are highly evocative, emotionally charged terms. And they are precisely the same terms religious exclusivists use to denigrate the beliefs of non-exclusivists. From a purely psychological point of view, it’s difficult not to see Qureshi as more like his ostensible enemies than he makes himself out to be.

There’s a reason why the mystical traditions have not cared to engage in some large-scale attack on religious exclusivism, a fact that Qureshi appears to lament. It’s because practitioners in those traditions don’t perceive the existence of people with different beliefs than their own as a threat.  This is because they have softened their narcissistic tendencies and cultivated the grace of empathy. They’ve learned to let the exclusivist’s mockeries and criticisms pass through them.

Personally, I have no interest in refuting or otherwise challenging religious exclusivists. Yes, we can play the game of logical chess and sharpen our intellect by wielding our philosophical acumen to beat down our opponent’s “vile” and “deluded” beliefs. But do we really accomplish anything here other than temporarily quieting our own insecurities?

Having been an exclusivist, I understand the appeal it can have. I also understand the futility of trying to force people (intellectually or otherwise) out of their deeply held convictions. And I realize that like all other humans I have my own exclusivist tendencies. To the extent that I’m consumed with assaulting religious exclusivists I may be masking my exclusivist tendencies, tendencies that would plausibly motivate my own attack on exclusivism. This is why I’ve declined to say much about these issues since 2012.

That being said, I do understand Qureshi’s need to assault religious exclusivists.  But I think apologists against religious exclusivism might benefit by asking, “what is my ultimate intention here?” Even the protest against exclusivism can be primitive in origin. Fear can drive exclusivist apologetics, and it can also drive the more virulent opposition to it. Most importantly, it can short-circuit the one thing that’s needed. What’s needed is conversation, not assault. We need to cultivate the art of dialogue not counter-terrorist military-style tactics.

How do we have this conversation?

One precondition would be our becoming more conscious of our own tribalism and the psychology that drives it. What we despise most in the exclusivist may be what we’ve been unable to see and accept in ourselves. If we can tap into our own personal exclusivism, we might have more effective conversation with those who are exclusivist in their own way. Empathy, not argument, is a balm on fear.  In the end, this can help filter and regulate the more deleterious effects tribalism has, whilst avoiding the implausible and self-defeating goal of trying to eradicate it.

The invitation to conversation with exclusivists is at the end of the day an invitation to have a discussion with people who are very much like us in their basic psychology. No one of us is above the fallen angels of our nature. This is the central insight of the mystical traditions Qureshi otherwise lauds.

Michael Sudduth

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